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Fragmentation and Recreation: An Ontology of fluctus and defluere in Augustine’s Confessions

Joshua Benjamins

University of Notre Dame

Among the many rich and multivalent metaphors which both enliven and structure Augustine’s Confessions, the imagery of watery ebb and flow (fluctus/defluere, mare, gurges) holds a place of particular prominence. Several scholars have explored this metaphor’s roots in the language of the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms (most fully Rondet 1954 with Chatillon 1954; see more recently O’Donnell 1992: 2:110,112), while others have highlighted its significance for Augustine’s philosophy of human emotion (McDuffie 2010) and his evaluation of the potentially destabilizing power of rhetoric (Rougé 1982). What is lacking in these analyses is a systematic account of the place of aquatic imagery within the broader movement of the Confessions. I propose a holistic reading of the metaphor by defining and analyzing a pair of interlocking lexical sets in the Confessions. The first set consists of terms for swelling and flowing (fluctus, defluere and cognates, from PIE *bʰleh), which recur with great frequency in the opening four books of the Confessions, including the beginning and end of the critical Books 2 and 3 (2.2.3-2.2.4, 2.10.18, 3.1.1, 3.2.3, 3.11.20). This terminology defines the destabilizing force of fallen mortality, which is repeatedly contrasted with the stability and imperturbability of the divine being. I argue that the language of fluctus and defluere is intimately bound up with another lexical set, namely the language of dispersion (dispersio and dissipare). Both in the first, ‘autobiographical’ half of the Confessions and the more ‘theoretical’ second half, the human tendency towards fragmentation and dispersion (dispersio) is pointedly contrasted with the divine action of conligare (1.3.3; 2.1.1; 10.11.18; 12.16.23). As several commentators have suggested, this image echoes the neoplatonic ontology of Plotinus’ Enneads (O’Donnell 1992: 2:106-7; Clarke 1995: 117). I argue that Augustine through the structural metaphors of fluctus and defluere reads his own intellectual and spiritual history through the lens of a broader cosmic tension between the stabilizing force of divine power and the impetus of fallen humanity towards fragmentation and hence non-being. Fluctus and defluere ultimately situate Augustine’s movement away from God (dissipare, echoing the parable of the prodigal son) and his return to God within an ontology of creation and of the human person, proleptically outlined in the opening paragraphs and fully worked out in the cosmological exploration of the final books (Books 10-13).

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Narrating the Self: Autobiography in Late Antiquity

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